The Gist: Sports fandom remains steady, except the NFL, who could be losing viewers to the NHL.
With our office in Pittsburgh, it’s fair to say we know a thing or two about sports fandom. In the “City of Champions,” dropping interest or switching fandom is sacrilege.
Pittsburgh’s treatment of sports is a rule more than an exception. But, what leagues are more likely to experience drops in fandom or following?
Other than a few blips, NHL fans are steady followers of the league. In the past three years, very or somewhat closely followed fans have moved 3%. New people aren’t flocking to the league, but they aren’t leaving either.
MLB following year over year tells a similar story. Since 2015, the league’s “Very / somewhat closely” followers have dropped 2%, which is to say, it’s stayed almost entirely the same.
When you consider the NBA, it seems there might be a pattern forming. This league has experienced the same sort of stasis as the MLB or NHL.
So it would seem sports fandom is pretty constant, with most major league sports fans sticking to their game. Sure, it might waiver a percent or two over a three year period, but there are no significant shifts.
Until you get to the NFL.
Listen, we’ve known the NFL has had a viewership problem. Blame it on the National Anthem protests, politics taking eyes away from the field (which only seems to have accelerated post-election), or concerns around CTE and the safety of the sport. Any way you cut it, the sport is losing fans.
While no two major sports leagues look alike, it’s worth noting how much the NFL diverts from the other leagues. Of course, the NFL has (or had) the most significant fanbase– its three-year drop in following has its fan base in the same zones as other American sports leagues.
So are NFL fans merely renouncing the sport and finding non-sports related hobbies to fill their Sundays? Unlikely. We took a look at NFL followers crossed with other major league sports, and it looks like some football fans are dropping the pigskin in favor of the puck.
The rise in hockey fandom among football followers parallels the fall in interest in the NFL. Fans jumping from the NFL to NHL hasn’t caused a major shift in the sport overall–but it does suggest we are entering a new era in sports fandom.